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October 8, 2017

Nathan Straus and the Milk Stations That Saved the Lives of New York City Kids

Nathan Straus was one of the greatest retail merchants in American history, a co-owner of the Macy’s and Abraham & Straus department store chains. He used his fortune to help the poor in New York City, fund Jewish causes at home and abroad, and provide safe milk to children throughout the country. One of the most successful businessmen of his time, Straus gave away almost all of his money during his lifetime. For Straus, it was a point of principle. “What you give for the cause of charity in health is gold,” he wrote in his will, invoking a Jewish proverb. “What you give in sickness is silver, and what you give in death is lead.”

One of the milk depots for children established in New York by Nathan Strauss. Here pure milk in sealed bottles is supplied at a minimum cost. These depots are established at different points and are a great boon to poor people.

Milk became a special interest to him after a healthy-seeming cow on Straus’ upstate farm died, and an autopsy revealed it suffered from tuberculosis. He became convinced that children could become sick if they drank milk from infected cows, and that the newly developed technology devised by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, which required the heating of milk followed by rapid cooling, would kill all necessary dangerous microorganisms and make the milk safe.

Straus knew there was a scientific solution to this problem: pasteurization. He set to work both to provide pasteurized milk to needy children, and to have the process legally mandated for all milk sold. He set up milk stations in poor areas in New York City to give away pasteurized milk, and proof of the efficacy of the program was not long in coming. In 1891, fully 24 percent of babies born in New York City died before their first birthday. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only six died.

Portrait of Nathan Straus (1848-1931), circa 1920s. (The Straus Historical Society)

During the economic panic of 1893, Straus used his milk stations to sell coal at the very low price of 5 cents for 25 pounds to those who could pay. Those who could not received coal free. He also opened lodging houses for 64,000 people, who could get a bed and breakfast for 5 cents, and he funded 50,000 meals for one cent each. He also gave away thousands of turkeys anonymously. At Abraham & Straus he noticed that two of his employees were starving themselves to save their wages to feed their families, so he established what may have been the first subsidized company cafeteria.

Nathan Strauss pasteurized milk laboratory, Washington, DC.

In 1898 Straus served as president of the city’s Board of Health. He immediately donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan’s asylum, located on what is now Roosevelt Island in the East River, which was run by the board. Nationally, Straus established, at his own expense, 297 milk stations in 36 cities. The national death rate for infants fell from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Altogether it is estimated that the efforts of Nathan Straus directly saved the lives of 445,800 children.

Nathan Straus’ First Milk Depot, opened in the summer of 1893. (Courtesy of the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Columbia University)

This milk depot, opened in 1894 by Nathan Straus, sold pasteurized milk for one cent per glass, 1910. (Bain News Service)

Straus’ interest in eradicating disease and alleviating poverty extended beyond the shores of America. In 1912, he and his wife Lina traveled to Europe to attend the International Tuberculosis Conference in Rome. (Brother Isidor and his wife also went on the same trip, but sailed home aboard the Titanic and famously refused seats offered to them in the lifeboats.)

Before the conference, Nathan and Lina stopped in Palestine, which was ravaged at the time by disease and famine. The couple both opened up a soup kitchen and founded the Health Department there. Straus became active in the movement to create a Jewish state. He served as chair of the American Jewish Congress Committee and fought for the organization to adopt a stronger Zionist stance. The town of Natanya on the Mediterranean was named after him.

Straus returned to Palestine many times and his support would never waver—he gave over $1.5 million during the course of his life. He offered one of the first major gifts to Hadassah, the Zionist women’s organization, for the support of a medical mission to Israel. He funded the construction of the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center in Jerusalem, which he said was to be for all the inhabitants of the country, irrespective of race, creed, or color. In 1927, after a great earthquake shook Palestine, Straus wired $25,000 to Jerusalem to help alleviate the suffering of all. At the age of 80, he served as the honorary chairman of the New York United Palestine Appeal, to which he donated $100,000. In 1931, Straus passed away at the age of 82, having spent the great majority of his fortune on good causes.

(via Philanthropy Roundtable)

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